Religious extremism: Global reach, local strategies

Religious extremists used to occupy society’s margins. Today, religious extremism seems to be everywhere — from ISIS’ brutal battlefields to lone-wolf terrorist attacks in the U.S., France and Sweden, to name a few. According to the Global Terrorism Index, religious extremism has become the main driver of terrorism in the world. And if religious extremism is crossing geographic boundaries, it is also leaping religious boundaries — there are examples of extremism in every major world religion. What factors contribute to the rise and spread of religious extremism? What are governments, communities and individuals doing to combat it? And do they have a prayer of success? This edition of ReligionLink is a primer on religious extremism, a growing concern to global communities.



Religious extremism 

Scholar Neil J. Kressel has identified several common characteristics of religious extremism and religious extremists. These include:

  • Idealization of a past era combined with the belief that the world has gone awry
  • Declared certainty of the correctness of one’s religious vision
  • Complete unwillingness to compromise with those who disagree
  • Powerful denunciation of people with different lifestyles, especially when they involve forms of homosexuality or sexual liberality
  • Devaluation of events in this world and an intense focus on life after death
  • Willingness to assume the role of God’s “hit man,” defending the deity and his representatives against all perceived insults
  • Extreme veneration of some religious leader or leaders
  • Dehumanizing imagery of nonbelievers and religious out-groups
  • Strong preference for keeping women in traditional, subordinate roles

Research on religious extremism



  • The Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace at James Madison University works to engage academia in the study and prevention of terrorism and the promotion of peace. It conducts conferences and produces white papers on various topics about terrorism and peace that frequently include a religion angle. Frances Flannery is the director of the center which is located in Harrisonburg, Va. Contact 540-568-6340.
  • The Clarion Project describes itself as “an independently funded, non-profit organization dedicated to exposing the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation and promoting grassroots activism.” It is based in Washington, D.C. Contact Jennifer Packer, [email protected].
  • The Global Counterterrorism Forum is an international organization of countries that works to reduce vulnerability to terrorism by effectively preventing, combating and prosecuting terrorist acts and countering incitement and recruitment to terrorism. It has a working group called Countering Violent Extremism. The U.S. is one of 30 founding members of the GCTF. Contact [email protected].
  • The Institute for Strategic Dialogue is an independent think tank based in London that works with leaders in government, business, civil society and academia to develop cross-border responses to security challenges, including extremism. The institute requests that all media inquiries be made in writing. Contact [email protected].
  • Jihadica is the independent website of several researchers and academics who monitor Sunni-based Islamic extremism worldwide. Its lead author is Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Contact [email protected].
  • My Jihad is a Chicago-based educational campaign that seeks to combat Islamic extremism and anti-Muslim extremism by reframing the meaning of the word “jihad.” It was founded by local activist Ahmed Rehab and is sponsored by the Council on Islamic Relations-Chicago. Contact via its website.
  • The Quilliam Foundation is an anti-extremism think tank based in London. Noman Benotman is its president. Contact +44 (0) 207 182 7284.
  • The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis  is a Moscow-based nonprofit that conducts research on nationalism, xenophobia, relations between religion and secular society, and political radicalism. Alexander Verkhovsky is director. Contact +7 (495) 517-9230, [email protected].
  • Truth Wins Out, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, works against anti-gay prejudice and has a Center Against Religious Extremism. Wayne Besen is its founding executive director. Contact 917-691-5118, [email protected].
  • Women Without Borders is a Vienna-based organization that started a campaign called SAVE — Sisters Against Violent Extremism — an initiative designed to empower and enable women to combat religious extremism in communities and families. Edit Schlaffer is the founder. Contact +43/1/533 45 51, [email protected].

International sources

  • Omar Ashour

    Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer in Middle East politics and security studies at the University of Exeter in England. One of his areas of expertise is Islamist movements and ideologies.

    He has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to combat religious extremism.

  • Ian Linden

    Ian Linden is a senior adviser at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and an associate professor in the study of religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He has served as director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations and is a member of the Christian-Muslim Forum of the U.K. Linden has worked in interfaith dialogue with Shiite leaders in Iran and has consulted with the U.K. government on matters of faith and development.

    He has crafted 10 propositions for combating religious extremism.

  • Maajid Nawaz

    Maajid Nawaz is co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an international think tank based in London that focuses on integration, citizenship and identity, religious freedom, extremism and immigration. He is the author of Radical: My Journey Out of Islamic Extremism. He gave a TED Talk on fighting religious extremism.

  • David Stevens

    David Stevens is an assistant professor of social sciences at the University of Nottingham in England. He is co-author of The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace.

National sources

  • Johanna Birnir

    Johanna Birnir is an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland in College Park, as well as a researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. She is an expert on terrorism and society.

    In 2012, she was part of a panel at Harvard Divinity School that looked at the roots of religious extremism.

  • Frances Flannery

    Frances Flannery is the director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace (CISTP) and an associate professor of religion at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Her current area of study is apocalypticism and its link to terrorism. She also teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible, world religions, religion and mysticism in early Judaism and Christianity. She serves on the editorial board of the peer-reviewed Journal of Religion and Film.

  • Neil J. Kressel

    Neil J. Kressel is a professor of psychology at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J., and the author of Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism. His scholarship focuses on religion, psychology, prejudice and race relations, history, journalism, politics and political research. He is an expert on religious extremism and anti-Semitism.

  • Farah Pandith

    Farah Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, where she is an expert on the Islamic State group and its efforts to recruit young Muslims. She is writing a book on extremism. Contact via her research assistant, Zach Shapiro.

  • Angel Rabasa

    Angel Rabasa is a senior political analyst for the Rand Corp. in Washington. He has written widely on Islamic extremism in Turkey, India, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Contact via Rand’s Office of Media Relations.

  • Omar Ahmed Shahin

    Omar Ahmed Shahin is an imam, a lawyer and director of the Islamic studies program at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Mishawaka, Ind. He is an expert on Islam in the Middle East and in the U.S. and Islamic law and the family.

    In March 2015, he attended a conference on combating religious extremism organized by the Saudi Arabian government and held in Mecca.

    Contact: 602-803-0976.